Memorable Mementos – Souvenirs at Zoos and Aquariums

By Sara Karnish

No visit to a zoo or aquarium is complete without a stop in the gift shop. Finding the perfect souvenir is the best way to bring a little bit of the zoo home and end an exciting day of learning and discovery.
“Our top two or three items are almost always tiger plush. It’s one of the things Point Defiance Zoo is most known for,” said Amy Campbell, store director at Point Defiance Zoo in Tacoma, Wash. “We promote the Dr. Holly Reed Tiger conservation fund that supports anti-poaching patrols and the Species Survival Plan. It’s something we share with visitors when they come to shop.”

Gift Store Sales Lead Josiah Likkel of the Seattle Aquarium. Sea otter magnets, plush and jewelry are best-selling items for the store.


Brenda Young, assistant director of Capron Park Zoo in Attleboro, Mass., said they do not have one standout souvenir in their 350-square-foot shop. “Everything sells great. Plush, which we can’t stock enough of, things with our logo, and anything with our animals on it. We have a photographer who takes pictures of our animals and does our magnets, posters, jewelry, stickers and things—they all sell really well. People gravitate towards them because they show photos of our animals.” Young said she feels guests want to bring home items bearing an image of the zoo’s animals because their plush, and other animal likenesses, resemble the real animals in the zoo. “Guests like making that connection—I hear that a lot. They will purchase a plush or magnet featuring an image of the animal, and its name,” she pointed out.
Likewise, items featuring images of the animals at the Seattle Aquarium in Seattle, Wash., sell well in their 2,500-square-foot gift shop, according to Jasmine Ramirez, store director. “Items like magnets, plush, and jewelry that showcase our sea otters are almost always our best-sellers,” Ramirez explained. “We have two otters here at the Seattle Aquarium named Mishka and Sekiu and they are favorites of guests from all over the world.” Ramirez said when choosing vendors and selecting merchandise, she and her team do have a criteria they follow: “Seattle Aquarium is focused on Inspiring Conservation of our Marine Environment, so bringing in items that support that message is important. Finding vendors that share your values of conservation and regenerating the natural world help to present the kind of product that our guests expect.” She shared out of state tourists are their largest customer demographic.

Jasmine Ramirez, store director, Seattle Aquarium, Seattle, Wash. Out-of-state tourists are the store’s largest customer demographic, she said.


Young said their largest demographic are families with young children (under 5) and grandparents with grandchildren. She uses a variety of methods to find new merchandise to appeal to their guests. “I look through trade magazines to see what’s new and get ideas. Our photographer does a lot of production for us and gives us ideas for how to adapt things. I’ve reached out directly to vendors I’ve seen in magazines. We also belong to a zoo and aquarium retail group. Sometimes I’ll go to other zoos and see what’s selling there,” she said. Campbell stresses the importance of research. “It takes a lot of work, and we’re lucky to have a team of buyers to help us with this. You want to find products that educate kids as well as represent the zoo and aquarium,” she explained. She added, “We get a lot of multigenerational family groups. It’s fun to see the parents and grandparents sharing their own memories from past visits with their kids and grandkids.”
In many instances, zoos and aquariums use merchandise to further educate and support the welfare of one (or more) animal in the venue. Point Defiance Zoo does this with their tiger conservation initiative. “Tigers live in rainforests, and those forests are being destroyed to create plantations that produce Palm oil. We made the decision a few years ago to stop carrying items—mostly food—containing palm oil,” Campbell explained. “Even if the guests don’t know it, we’re helping support the conservation effort. We also hope that by taking an item home guests will have a tangible connection to the tigers that inspires them to help in the future.” Ramirez said at the Seattle Aquarium, “We use signage, media, and guest service to share our ‘Shop and Support’ message. When people make a purchase, they are doing so much more than just buying an item. They are helping us inspire conservation through a variety of ways. Seattle Aquarium can extend learning outside of our walls, by offering public programs such as our Beach Naturalists, Science Club, and Cedar River Salmon Journey. There is so much to learn here!”

A display of conservation items at the Seattle Aquarium. Selling items that support a message of “inspiring conservation of our marine environment” is important to the store, the store director said.


Like other categories, souvenirs have their trends. Young said, “For us, we just started carrying Toobs [the little animals that come in tubes] and they’re going over great with our visitor base. We also sell Cutie Beans by Fiesta and they fly off the shelves,” she noted. Right now, Campbell said, “We see a lot of sales in kid’s jewelry. We have incorporated jewelry from vendors that give back to support the environment and they have been selling well, too.” The environment is an important cause for most zoos—protecting their animals’ natural habitats and educating guests about the world around them is a common goal. “Guests are really interested in any items that give back to the environment,” Ramirez said. “People are using their purchases to support environmental causes. For example, we carry a selection of socks from a vendor that gives back to the communities protecting the oceans with each purchase.”
Merchandising in zoo and aquarium gift shops can be difficult because many of these retail outlets have limited space. Capron Park Zoo is one of them. “Visibility and accessibility are key to creating good displays. We don’t really have room for elaborate displays. We’re fairly small so it’s easy to make things visible,” Young said. “We have a big display case in the middle of the store, so it makes a big difference, being able to have the space for that so people can take time to look. Four years ago we remodeled the gift shop and took away the individual stands and put up pegboards. They’re double-sided with end caps so people can browse and keep an eye on the kids at the same time.”
Campbell said the best displays are neat and clean. “A good display is simple but caters to all ages. Having key items that complement each other in one spot not only looks great, but it also helps our guests easily find the mug, keychain, or T-shirt they came in for,” she pointed out. “They often end up grabbing extra souvenirs for themselves, family, or friends.”
Ramirez said, “We try to keep it fresh and have a regular schedule for merchandising products. We also use events happening around the aquarium to plan out new features. It really is such a wonderful place to create displays for!”

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